Root, Root, Root For The Host Team
12:19 PM EDT on August 7, 2023
One of the best parts about this World Cup having two host nations is that New Zealand's early exit in the group stage didn't rob the tournament of one of its purest joys: rooting for the hosts. Australia shook off a bit of a sleepy start to the tournament—a 1-0 win over Ireland, a 3-2 loss to Nigeria—to qualify at the top of Group B, thanks to a 4-0 demolition of Canada. Not only did that ensure that the Matildas avoided England in the round of 16, it also meant that the biggest stadium in the tournament (Sydney's 76,000-capacity Stadium Australia) would stage the team's match against Denmark on Monday. All credit is due to Australian fans, who filled the stands with their bodies and filled the stadium with their roaring voices, as Australia advanced to the quarterfinals with a commanding, raucous 2-0 victory over the Danes.
If Australia woke up with the trouncing of Canada, it was both team and country that were wide awake for Monday's knockout match. Right from kick-off, the din of the crowd accompanied every Australian attacking move, switching from merely loud to deafening whenever a move grew particularly dangerous. The team met the audience's energy, too, playing its most comprehensive offensive game of the tournament against Denmark, even more so than in the group finale. While that previous showing came against a strangely disconnected Canadian side, Denmark brought the game to Australia early on, not making it easy on either side of the ball. In a sense, this is exactly the test Australia needed, though, especially with star striker and beloved public figure Sam Kerr seemingly healed up at last and just waiting for her chance to come on from the bench.
Australia didn't exactly need Kerr on Monday, and that's because the combo of Mary Fowler and Caitlin Foord delivered on their promise and quality, respectively. In the 30th minute, Fowler found herself with the ball in the middle of the park with Foord streaking down the left wing, and the 20-year-old hit one of the best passes of the tournament, bypassing four Danish defenders and giving Foord a clear run on goal from the flank. The Arsenal winger made no mistake of the golden opportunity, burying the ball in the back of the net for an early 1-0 lead:
Play that first video again and just listen to the crowd. It's got that special quality of a particularly loud one, in that it is a swell that starts loud when Fowler gets the ball and picks her head up, only to then somehow scale up as the pass is delivered, Foord beats the defender into the open space, and finally explodes upon the ball going in. The craziest part is that it would only get louder in the second half.
The first swell in the second 45 came in the 69th minute. With Australia still clinging to a 1-0 lead, but Denmark pushing hard for the equalizer, a sight for sore eyes appeared on the Australian sideline: Sam Kerr warming up. Having missed the first three games of this World Cup with an injury sustained in pre-match training on day one, Kerr had been itching to get back onto the field at a home World Cup. Just the sight of her completing her warm-ups created pandemonium:
This kicked off a roughly 10-minute period of chaos in Sydney for the fans in attendance, because there was Fowler again just two minutes later, creating a chance that would eventually turn into the second Australian goal of the evening. Having positioned herself at the top of the box for a cutback pass from Kyra Cooney-Cross, Fowler took a touch to her left foot then chipped a ball that somehow got through the Danish defense and onto the foot of Emily van Egmond, with her back to goal. Instead of trying some fancy turn or backheel, van Egmond laid it off to Hayley Raso, who, like Foord before her, buried the off-angle shot. Cue delirium:
Once again, thanks to Fowler's build-up, the crowd began its tidal wave of sound just as the ball left her foot, and van Egmond's delayed lay-off only served to create more anticipation that was exhaled full force as soon as Raso's shot flew by Danish goalie Lene Christensen. A 2-0 scoreline, an almost assured spot in the quarterfinals ... this was about as good a match as Australia could have hoped for. And it only got better once Kerr checked in during the 80th minute for Raso.
Though Kerr didn't score during her cameo appearance, and in fact had a bit of an awkward fall that momentarily took the air out of the stadium, she was apparently fine, and is now seemingly ready to play a big role going forward. That she's come back right when Australia will need her most—in the next round they will either face a tough France team or the miraculous Moroccans—makes this a real moment of belief for team and country.
Can Australia become the first hosts to lift the World Cup trophy since the United States did it in 1999? Through two muted games of the group stage, it didn't look likely, but now that the volume has been turned up as high as it goes, and with the return of Kerr, the chances have skyrocketed. Australia has talent across the field—its defense has been maligned, but aside from the three-goal eruption from Nigeria, the backline has held three clean sheets—and has the support of its fans willing it to not just win but do so with aplomb.
Even after the second goal, when the match looked in hand, the Matildas kept pushing and pushing for a third, because how could a team possibly take it easy with that booming crowd urging them on? They will need that mentality against France, and whoever might lay in wait in the semis and the final, should they get there. There are no guarantees in a World Cup, of course, but if there is anything close to one, it's that the party won't stop in Australia until the team is eliminated or everyone's hearing is shot from a trophy celebration. As a neutral fan, there's a clear rooting interest in the latter, if only to keep the sonic boom going as long as it can last.